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Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest - 5. Indianapolis Marathon

Cranes and The Marathon

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I DRIVEN TO INDIANAPOLIS without stopping at Jasper/Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area?

Many times. Dozens of times. Hundreds of times! Route 421 heading south zips right by the park just past the Kankakee River. The park is on the west side of the road a few miles north of Medaryville. It gets its name because of the two counties it straddles. Passing the park I've often thought, there must be some trails within worth running, but otherwise my car has stayed on cruise control.

Then a Chicago friend mentioned visiting Northwestern Indiana to view migrating sandhill cranes. "Where?" I asked. Jasper/Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, I was told. I decided that my next trip to Indianapolis would not be non-stop.

That opportunity came last weekend. Presently I am occupied running 7 marathons in 7 months to celebrate my 70th birthday. The fifth marathon on that list was Indianapolis. En route I could stop to see the sandhill cranes.

Observing the cranes

My wife Rose and I left Michigan City at noon on a Friday, arriving at Jasper-Pulaski an hour later. The observation platform overlooking the wetlands where migrating cranes pause in their flights south is off the main road. Heading south on 421, you ignore signs for a tree nursery, then turn right on country road 143, bypassing the first entry to the wildlife area used by hunters and fishermen. The crane-viewing area is about a quarter mile further west.

From the parking lot, we walked along a tree-lined path sprinkled with signs every few feet posing different questions about the eastern population of the greater sandhill cranes: How tall are they? In mating, how many offspring do they produce? Are they an endangered species?

The answers appear on an information board next to the observation platform: Three-and-a-half feet. Two, but only one usually survives. Cranes no longer are endangered, having increased in numbers from less than 1,000 several decades ago to 20,000 today. If Regis Philbin asks you about sandhill cranes, use me as your lifeline. The cranes spend the summer nesting around and above the Great Lakes, then pause in Jasper-Pulaski to refuel for their flight to wintering grounds in Florida and Georgia. According to the Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife, cranes eat berries, roots, insects, frogs, small animals, and waste grains, benefiting farmers by removing harmful insect pests and aerating the soil while probing with their long bills. Blue-gray birds, they can be identified by red patches on their foreheads--if you get close enough. Cranes try to stay distant from humans.

It being mid-day, most of the cranes were off in nearby fields feeding so they would have the energy to fly south. A dozen or so cranes more than a hundred yards away were visible from the observation platform. Only a few other people were present. Prime viewing time is sunrise or sunset. We watched the cranes briefly through binoculars, then continued to Indianapolis.

Given my marathon plans, I needed to feed myself, though not on frogs and insects. Forty-five minutes further down the road, we stopped at Klein Brot Haus in Brookston. Rose and I discovered this bakery several years ago. Klein Brot Haus features home-made soup, sandwiches and various bakery delicacies. We arrived just in time to order soup and a tuna sandwich, then on to Indianapolis.


The Indianapolis Marathon follows roads in and around the former Fort Benjamin Harrison in the northeastern suburb of Lawrence. An event with near 2,000 competitors, only a third run the full 26-mile marathon. The rest run a simultaneous half marathon or a 5-K walk/run that starts 15 minutes later. After picking up my race number (70), we checked into the nearby Sheraton Four Points Hotel and awaited a call from Scott Hala, a computer programmer who works at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. We had planned to get together for dinner with Scott and his wife Lori at Mama Carolla's Italian Restaurant so I could continue my carbohydrate-loading.

Running often brings me in contact with people I otherwise never would meet socially. At first glance, Scott might seem an unlikely marathoner. Age 38, he once weighed more than 300 pounds. After being diagnosed with high blood pressure, Scott chose exercise as the most effective means of lowering it. Running helped him lose 60 pounds. Indianapolis would be his third marathon.

The conversation shifted from running to another mutual interest: comic books. When he and Lori bought their house, they sold part of his comic book collection for the down payment. Rather than comic books, I collect the original art and own several pages by John Romita, Jr., an artist whose wife has friends in Michigan City. A double-page spread from The Uncanny X-Men by Romita, Jr. graces the wall of my office. Scott and I agreed that we liked the recent movie rendition of that comic. Then it was off to rest for the next day's marathon.

"Follow that old man!"

Hal and V-Teamer Rick Burkhart at finish line.The Indianapolis Marathon wound first through a suburban neighborhood, then crossed into Benjamin Harrison State Park and out Fall Creek Parkway before returning. The half marathon, run simultaneously, attracted a number of walkers, apparently in their first "race." Many seemed unaware that lining up near the front might offend Miss Manners. Two or three minutes into the marathon, I found myself still having to weave around people walking three- and four-abreast totally unaware of the traffic jam they were causing. Worst offenders were walkers wearing lime-green T-shirts bearing the name "Pavement Pounders."

Once past the walkers, I focused on my goal of finishing faster than my time in Chicago (5:29:13) two weeks earlier. I fell into a steady rhythm, comparing mile splits with a woman running nearby at the same pace. We would run together only to part going up a hill, or while taking water, then found ourselves running nearby again. She helped anchor my pace, and I hers. When the course doubled back, I spotted Scott coming up from behind. We waved, but had no time for conversation. Near 11 miles, the course turned into the wind at about the time a linebacker-sized man passed, allowing me to use him as a windshield. But both my companions were running the half marathon and turned off at 13 miles, forcing me to continue my marathon unaided.

I crossed an intersection where a policeman waited to allow a car to pass as soon as a gap in the pack appeared. As I ran by, I overheard him say to the driver, "Follow that old man!" Cruel words.

My half-marathon time put me on pace for a 5:00 finish--if I could hold it. Unfortunately, the sun had risen high in a cloudless sky. The temperature was climbing toward an ultimate 70. Two weeks between marathons obviously was too little time for recovery. My pace slowed and I began alternating walking and running miles as a survival tactic, hoping no Pavement Pounders would catch me. The course turned back around 19 miles, and I said hello to Scott still chugging along. After that, it got very lonely. At one corner, I looked around and saw nobody in front and nobody behind. At Chicago, two weeks earlier, I had been surrounded by dozens of runners at that same point.
Rose at Klein Brot Haus

Rose at Klein Brot HouseDespite the walking, I was 1 second ahead of my 26-mile split from Chicago, but lost 27 seconds in the last 385 yards, finishing in 5:29:35. Far from my best, it was another one of my 7-7-70 marathons completed. Two more remained: Honolulu in December and Disney World in January. Rose greeted me at the finish line. She had begun to worry when I did not finish in my planned time. In several previous marathons, I had carried a cellular phone, but not this time. We remained long enough for a few pictures. Scott Hala, slowed by blisters, finished his third marathon an hour later.

By then, we were en route home, stopping again at Klein Brot Haus and Jasper/Pulaski. We arrived at the wildlife area an hour before sunset, having learned on our first visit that we would see more sandhill cranes--and people watching those sandhill cranes. Nearly a hundred people crowded the observation platform, so we watched from ground level what appeared to be a thousand cranes with more coming in for landings. I was fatigued from my marathon, so we remained only briefly, hoping we might see the cranes later this winter in Florida. Like the cranes, we too migrate south now when warmer weather beckons. Several dozen motorcyclists and a tour bus filled with sandhill crane fans arrived as we departed.

Perhaps if I mimic the feeding habits of the sandhill cranes and eat frogs and insects, my endurance will improve and my next marathon will result in a faster performance.

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